Intelligence Innovation Lags

America’s declining influence over scientific and technological innovation has had “an enormous impact” on U.S. intelligence agencies, and “makes it more likely that our adversaries can employ the very same — or perhaps even more advanced” — science and technology than that available to the United States. That’s the assessment from the Intelligence Science Board, which advises senior intelligence leaders.

In a report issued in November, parts of which were recently obtained by National Journal, the board warned that although the United States remains the world leader in some fields of science and engineering, that position is slipping — and the slide imperils the intelligence community’s ability to adapt to a dramatically changing technological landscape that terrorists are increasingly exploiting.

Terrorists have used the Internet, which has enabled a “worldwide diffusion” of knowledge, to gather and transmit scientific and technological know-how, leading to “incredible capabilities that our adversaries have exploited and used to further the goals of radical Islam,” the report states. The assessment doesn’t specify the capabilities, but terrorists are widely known to use the Internet to communicate with each other, disseminate propaganda, and publish information on building bombs and designing attacks.

The report, which is marked “For Official Use Only,” was prepared for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; National Journal obtained portions of it from a source outside that office. It casts the U.S. decline in overall research and development as an enormous challenge to the intelligence agencies’ ability to collect information about new adversaries. The board calls for “an entirely new approach to increasing the contribution of” science and technology to intelligence capabilities, but it offers a bleak assessment of the progress made on that front. “Neither the intelligence community nor the S&T establishment,” the report states, “has put forth viable strategies for accomplishing this change.”

Against this backdrop, the DNI is launching a research-and-development effort to provide “breakthrough” technologies for the intelligence agencies, including sensors and communications devices that can help human spies collect more-detailed information. This research extends beyond the traditional realm of satellite imagery and eavesdropping to include an emphasis on devices that spies can use to narrowly target individuals and groups, and to anticipate their movements.

Beginning next year, R&D efforts that have application for many, or all, of the intelligence agencies will be centralized in a single outfit called the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity and dubbed iARPA. Modeled after the Defense Department’s hugely successful DARPA, which developed stealth aircraft and paved the way for the Internet, iARPA will pull together research funds from across the agencies to increase the chances of fielding new, better technologies, according to Steve Nixon, director of science and technology for the DNI.

The research agency will officially open its doors in October 2008. Its goal is to ensure that new technologies don’t take the intelligence agencies by surprise, Nixon said. But it will also look for tools to surprise America’s adversaries and to collect information about them in ways they haven’t anticipated or don’t understand. “We really need to pursue surprise in the intelligence community more than we have before,” Nixon said.

During the Cold War, the United States deployed fleets of spy satellites to track Soviet military movements. But terrorists operate in a fundamentally different way than do nation states — their network “resembles a metastasized cancer that has spread through the world body,” according to the intelligence board. Terrorists are, by their very nature, harder to track and anticipate. For that reason, “precisely targeted intelligence represents the best way to combat spreading terrorism,” and the intelligence community must do a better job of developing the tools to do that, the report states.

According to Nixon, iARPA will focus on improving intelligence collection and analysis. “We think we can do more to help analysts deal with information,” he said. Today, much of the most valuable information about terrorism resides in the world of open sources — the Internet, the media, and academia. The intelligence agencies have spent millions of dollars on efforts to keep this multiplicity of sources and huge volume of information from overwhelming their analysts.

The Intelligence Science Board emphasized that U.S. spies need to keep pace with the increasingly rapid development and deployment of new technologies but found that, in large measure, the government is in the dark about new R&D and unable to direct it.

The report starkly states: “The government now has far less control than before over the problems addressed, the selection of personnel to perform the work, and the locations where the work is carried out, and less knowledge than ever before of what work is actually being done.” Decades ago, the federal government, and particularly military and space programs, were the primary drivers of American R&D. Over time, that balance shifted, and today the private sector directs almost all new research.

The new research unit will absorb research funds from three other agencies: the Disruptive Technology Office, once overseen by the National Security Agency and now under the DNI, which designs and vets computer programs that help analysts cope with large sets of data; a CIA research unit called the Intelligence Technology Innovation Center; and the National Technology Alliance, which focuses on a range of issues, including biological, chemical, and nuclear countermeasures. The alliance is housed at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which produces imagery and detailed maps for military and homeland-security operations.

Some intelligence officials are hopeful about iARPA’s potential. “It could be a good thing,” said Mark Reardon, director of the National Technology Alliance. Founded in 1987, the NTI encourages small businesses, especially those not accustomed to working with the government, to bring new technologies to the intelligence community.

The CIA “has made a serious commitment of resources — people and dollars — to strengthen technology programs” at the community-wide level, meaning those that apply to more than one intelligence agency, said Paul Gimigliano, an agency spokesman. “Those resources would be at the heart of iARPA. But we still need, and will still have, a strong focus on research and innovation within the CIA itself,” he said. The agency has a “full range of technical issues intrinsic to the agency’s specialty, clandestine operations,” he added.

Nixon said that the agencies whose funds iARPA is subsuming had worked on projects with outside applications but were all under pressure to meet their own needs. He emphasized that iARPA is not taking over all of the other agencies’ research budgets. “We’re talking about money that was only set aside for future community research.”

The Intelligence Science Board urged caution when combining all research programs under one umbrella, arguing that doing so could stymie innovation and “maximize the probability of failure, not success” if the new efforts were inadequately funded. “That legacy would have agonizing consequences,” the report stated.

The board also wrote that its members “enthusiastically support the iARPA concept” but asserted that existing research programs “lack adequate staffing and finances.” (The intelligence research budgets are classified.) The board urged the director of national intelligence to use his authority to reallocate agency budgets and to fund iARPA “at a minimum of double the level of the existing organizations.” A funding increase, the board argued, was needed to free up more money for new ideas and longer-term projects, “and avert poaching on programs already under way.”

One former intelligence official, who asked not to be identified because Congress has yet to pass next year’s intelligence budget, worried that Congress hasn’t sufficiently funded iARPA, and questioned whether administration officials had pushed hard enough for more money. The official also described significant resistance at the individual agencies to giving up any resources, and cautioned that iARPA could stymie innovation if it “stovepipes” research and development all in one place.

Nixon, while not addressing the specifics of the report, said that iARPA will centrally manage contracts and projects but that outside researchers and other agencies will handle much of the work. He also said that, following the DARPA model, the new agency would limit the tenure of its managers as a way of ensuring a constant flow of new talent and ideas.

Published in National Journal